Thursday, April 23, 2009
Fear and Trembling: A Dialectical Lyric
Soren Kierkegaard (hereafter, "SK") authored Fear and Trembling under the pseudonym of Johannes de Silentio. Most scholars believe SK did this to distance himself from the content. The title of the book originates from the notion that Johannes de Silentio is overcome with fear and trembling upon reading the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac from Genesis 22. In this story God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac; Abraham obeys only to have his son spared from death at the last moment when God provides a ram for sacrifice instead. Despite Abraham’s insane neglect of the ethical, he is deemed the “Father of the Faith” because of his obedience. It is from this starting point that Johannes de Silentio begins his discourse.
Firstly, it must be acknowledged that, at the very least, Fear and Trembling is a cry from SK for nominal Christians to consider the depth and danger of what they claim to be and believe. While not all of his readers would be able to understand the philosophical arguments, certainly most could empathize with de Silentio’s inability to fathom this complicated story. There is no question that the mere topic of this work was aimed to agitate apathetic Christians by taking a familiar story and displaying its complications.
Moving further toward the details, Johannes de Silentio paints a portrait of Abraham as found in the Genesis account and deduces a number of claims. The first is that Abraham’s greatness came through powerlessness. The second is that Abraham had faith for this life. And the third is that Abraham must have believed the absurd, or otherwise he would have acted differently; this is why he is regarded as the Father of the Faith. From here the author then addresses problems with relation to faith and ethics.
The first and greatest difficulty is what de Silentio calls “a teleological suspension of the ethical.” What this means is that, for Abraham, the universal ethic (that which is understood by all to be moral) was temporarily suspended as the telos or goal of his behavior, and the only telos for Abraham was love for God demonstrated by his obedience. Consequently, Abraham’s faith then confirms that the single individual “is higher than the universal.” To put it more simply, Abraham’s purpose was outside the universal and cannot be related to the universal. If Abraham’s act of faith cannot be explained in terms of the universal ethic, then a new category must be created to describe it. This de Silentio deems “the absurd” and writes, “He acts on the strength of the absurd; for it is precisely the absurd that as the single individual he is higher than the universal.” From this first difficulty it may be concluded that Abraham acted in a way that suspended the universal ethic as the goal and believed in something outside of it, something absurd – in this case, God’s Will.
The second difficulty inquires whether there is an absolute duty to God. The central problem here is that the universal ethic becomes confused with the absolute: God. SK’s opponent, Hegel, argued that the universal ethic was the absolute and could be interchanged with the will of God. But the story of Abraham clearly illustrates that this is not the case. Abraham’s faith required him to act in a way that contradicted the ethical (i.e. though a father loves his son, Abraham was ready to kill Isaac). de Silentio thus concludes that faith is the most absolute allegiance to God, and the universal is subservient to it. Therefore, the individual cannot be understood by the mass. This concept is beautifully represented in the way that Abraham becomes a foreigner in his own land. From this second difficulty it may be concluded that there is no absolute duty to God, but rather the individual’s independent relation to God that is outside, above, and superior to the universal.
The third dilemma concerns Abraham’s concealment of his plan to murder his son (he did not tell his wife, Sarah, his friend, Eleazar, nor his son, Isaac). It is similar to the first two problems and yet it further emphasizes Abraham’s separation from the universal and his connection to the absolute. The unfortunate reality of Abraham’s situation was that he could not disclose his plan had he wanted. “Abraham is silent – but he cannot speak, therein lies the distress and anguish. He can say what he will, but he cannot say it in a way that another understands it.” Abraham is completely and utterly alone in his faith. However, from his actions it can be concluded that he viewed obedience to God as the only way. From this third dilemma the author illustrates that Abraham’s concealment was necessary in order to remain faithful to God.
At this point it may seem as though Abraham was deliriously devoted to God and had given up on his family, namely Isaac. But this was not the case. In fact, it is here that the entire paradox of faith is born: Abraham believed that by obeying God he would regain Isaac through the absurd (that which is outside of the universal ethic). When called to the task, Abraham resigns his claim to Isaac because God is the absolute; but then, through faith, Abraham believes he will regain Isaac through the absurd because God is Good. This is evidenced in Abraham’s reply to Isaac in Genesis 22:8, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” It is the greatest of paradoxes, but, if Abraham is the Father the Faith, then it must be so. What Johannes de Silentio is arguing is not simply the moral of the story but a genuine ontological claim! If Abraham is the epitome of faith, then his actions must transcend that which is known as the universal and relate to a far superior reality. Certainly a story such as this ought to elicit at least the smallest of fears and slightest of trembling!
Ultimately Fear and Trembling is about the foundation of faith: love. It exhibits the paradox that the one who loves God must renounce everything, and yet regains it by faith through the absurd. The one who loves God loves God alone and nothing else. The one who loves God needs nothing else nor desires anything else. However, through one’s love for God one gains everything. Abraham loved God alone and resigned everything, even his family. And yet through his love, he gained faith in the absurd and regained everything, including his family. “Only one who draws the knife gets the Isaac.”